The concept of the circular economy has amassed a global following and triggered the explosion of social, political and economic initiatives attempting to leverage the potential benefits it could bring. Nowhere has this flurry of activity been more apparent than in our cities. This article helps to provide a snapshot of some of the major circular economy initiatives being implemented around the world and outlines the major role cities are taking.

Overview of Circular Economy

By 2030, over 1 billion people will join the global population while the middle class will increase by over 3 billion people. That means 3 billion more cars, houses, washing machines, clothes and a billion more mouths to feed. Chuck in the severe impact of climate change, combined with dwindling natural resources, and we face a ticking time bomb. It’s therefore imperative that we expeditiously and radically redesign our economy from one that is inherently wasteful and linear to one that is circular by nature. To put it simply, a circular economy is an economic system that is regenerative and restorative by design and ensures a society’s resources are retained at their highest utility and value for as long as possible.

Global Circular Economy Initiatives

The transition to a circular economy is happening at a truly global level. The United Nations dedicated a sustainable development goal entirely to ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. In line with this, the world’s largest economic region, the European Union, released the Circular Economy Package, which contains legislative proposals on waste reduction to accelerate Europe’s circular economy transition.

At the national level, Scotland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and China are positioning themselves to become global circular economy leaders. Scotland has some of the most ambitious waste reduction targets in Europe and has launched a high-level national policy, titled “Making Things Last,” to reach these goals with a £70 million circular economy innovation fund to match.

The Netherlands has just devoted an entire week to the circular economy, launching national events, innovation competitions and debates. Global companies are also driving progress—Google, Nike, H&M, Cisco, Unilever, Phillips, Renault and many more have signed up to become trailblazers and pathfinders of the circular economy in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Just recently, Unilever announced that it aims to use 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. Although such global initiatives are a fantastic start, realizing these lofty ambitions at the local level is yet to be fully understood.

Circular Economy Responsible Consumption and Production (United Nations, Sottish government)

Sources: United Nations and Scottish Government

The Rise of Circular Cities

The circular economy is a global aspiration that must be tackled locally. Cities have begun to emerge as the optimum arenas, or hubs, for such local action to arise. Cities are the aggregators and powerhouses of the global economy. They provide a critical mass of resources and people with which networking & knowledge transfer and creativity, innovation, cooperation and collaboration can occur. They also offer a unique governing environment of indifference toward borders or sovereignty.

Benjamin Barber highlights in his TED Talk that cities are increasingly “responding to global problems more effectively than nation-states mired in ideological infighting and sovereign rivalries.” Cities also face the monumental challenges of overpopulation, pollution, and vulnerability to natural disasters and access insecurity to natural resources and therefore need to be proactive in addressing them. The C40 Cities Initiative and Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities programs are examples of this can-do attitude of cities.

Metabolic Circular Economy Illustration

Metabolic Circular Economy Illustration

Source: Metabolic

It is due to these city dynamics that myriad community groups, social enterprises and startups have emerged with the specific aim of increasing circularity within cities. These range from tool libraries, swap shops, local food co-ops, decentralized renewable energy schemes, peer-to-peer rental platforms and even zero-waste supermarkets.

I recently visited the CRCLR Lab in Berlin’s hippest borough, Neukölln. The CRCLR Lab is a fantastic example of a bottom-up social enterprise partnering with the city of Berlin to think locally but act globally. The aim of the CRCLR Lab is to convert a 2000m² derelict warehouse into a “living lab for the circular economy.” It aims to offer office space for a circular incubation program for startups, trial urban farming concepts, rent out waste-free CRCLR apartments (under construction), promote the sustainable growth of local industry clusters and deliver educational workshops on the circular economy to local residents.

A handful of dedicated circular economy consultancies have also sprung up to assess and facilitate systems-level initiatives, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circle Economy and Metabolic.

The CRCLR Lab Under Development in Berlin

The CRCLR Lab Under Development in Berlin

Source: CRCLR Lab

What’s most exciting is the decisive action city mayors and municipalities are taking to encourage circularity. Paris has launched a white paper on the circular economy, which outlines a comprehensive approach to making Paris circular through 65 initiatives incorporating areas such as public education, public procurement and tax incentives. Amsterdam has launched the AMS Institute to investigate how to close resource loops at the city level—particularly through their living lab.

London has devised an ambitious roadmap to the circular economy, estimated to add a staggering £7 billion per year to the city’s economy. Glasgow and Amsterdam are the first cities in the world to undertake a circular economy city scan in which resource flows are mapped throughout the city, across key economic sectors, and identifies opportunities to implement high impact resource, loop-closing projects.

Spurred on by the Plastic Packaging Report (released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation), a collaboration has formed between Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London to eradicate plastic packaging from the city waste streams. Meanwhile, beyond Europe, Seoul has identified itself as the sharing city by encouraging residents to make full use of idle assets (parking lots, spare rooms, children’s clothing and furniture). The likes of Austin, Texas and San Francisco, California have introduced zero-waste strategies, and Phoenix has funded the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network to develop technologies to improve resource efficiency.

Circular economy iniatitives collage

Sources: Marie De Paris, Circle Economy, Arizona State University, LWRB and AMS Institute

The remarkable thing about cities is that they are indifferent to borders and are far more collaborative with other cities around the world, compared to parent nation-states. A new initiative called the Circle Deepdive by Circle Economy, launching early this year, will take advantage of such intercity knowledge sharing. The Circle Deepdive is an online dashboard where cities can “compare their progress in relation to other cities with similar goals and measure their level of engagement in the circular economy.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Cities Network also aims to leverage the collaborative nature of cities by increasing intercity knowledge transfer of best practices.

Circle Deepdive Dashboard

Circle Deepdive Dashboard by Circle Economy

Source: Circle Economy

The pioneering cities mentioned above are likely to play a pivotal role in kick-starting a global circular economy transition and alleviating the fatal consequences caused by overpopulation, rampant consumption and dwindling resources. It is vital that city mayors, councils and municipalities harness the many strengths they and their cities possess to accelerate a local circular economy transition and share these learnings throughout a global network of cities.